Neighbors work holiday miracles on 34th Street

Lights, snowmen, flamingos abound as neighbors get ready for Christmas

Maryland Journal

November 14, 2005|By TOM PELTON | TOM PELTON,SUN REPORTER

It was almost as warm as springtime yesterday, but Jeanette Middlesworth was already decking her bathroom with a snowman shower curtain and matching soap dispensers. In front of her rowhouse in Hampden, she raised a 6-foot plastic snow globe, a hammered-tin baby Jesus, a gingerbread house, two families of life-size inflatable snowmen and a garden of candy canes.

Six weeks before Christmas - and well before Thanksgiving - the 50-year-old office worker and her neighbors were sweating like Santa's elves to build a wonderland of over-the-top holiday lighting displays that has made their street in Baltimore famous for its annual "Miracle on 34th Street."

"It reminds me of when I was growing up - a community event, neighbors working together for a great common goal," said Middlesworth, who lives in the 700 block of W. 34th St., perhaps the most intensely decorated strip of real estate in Maryland.

"That's why I like this neighborhood so much - it has such a good spirit."

For Middlesworth and her family, inflating an army of glowing snowmen atop their roof is part of a family tradition that includes three generations sitting down for a dinner of roast beef. She and her husband fell in love gazing at the Christmas lights draped from rooftop to rooftop across 34th Street, and they continue to light up the holidays with devotion.

For others in this corner of Hampden, the communal decorating has served as a ritual that has helped to preserve this working-class enclave as if in a snow globe, as suburbanization and gentrification have changed similar blocks in Baltimore.

"I've lived here for 71 years in what was my grandmother's home," said Patsy Dailey, who placed an artificial Christmas tree in front of her home yesterday, near a pair of snowmen statues made of welded bicycle wheels.

"This tradition means a lot to the neighborhood because we enjoy to see how much the children love it," said Dailey. "We're also proud that people come by the busload from other states just to look at our lights."

Although displaying the gaudy decorations - which include armies of glowing plastic elves, rooftop Santas, pink flamingos, train sets and porches buried in teddy bears - is considered a sacred duty for everyone on this block, the origins of the ritual only stretch back about 20 years.

Will Rodgers, a 50-year-old truck driver and a lifelong resident of 34th Street, recalls that holidays were always festive on the block, with people setting candles in their windows and passing out homemade candy to children and warm drinks to neighbors.

But in the early 1980s, Bob Hosier - who lives with his wife Darlene near 34th and Chestnut streets - and a few others began to escalate the decoration.

First it was a cardboard gingerbread house on the Hosiers' porch. Then Santa and his sleigh on the roof, rows of lighted candy canes, bulbous plastic Disney characters and tape-recorded Christmas music playing at all hours. Crowds started gathering, and traffic backed up for blocks.

"I put everything I could find on every inch of the house where it could possibly fit, without setting the whole place on fire," said Hosier, a 48-year-old trucking company manager. "And then I started putting the decorations on the building next door, and across the street. Now it's grown so much, we can't stop it."

Hosier was one of many who threw themselves into the act. He and Rodgers began marching up and down the street with a staple gun and strings of lights, volunteering to illuminate homes where people couldn't afford them or didn't have anyone tall and strong enough to raise them.

In the early 1990s, neighbors began stringing the lights over the street, creating a bright tunnel during the Christmas season.

"The old people enjoy it as much as the children," said Sharon Burke, who climbed up on roofs yesterday with her husband, Donald, to hang lights. "When you come down here, it takes you out of the world's troubles, and you go into a fantasy land."

By neighborhood agreement, the strings of lights aren't plugged in until the Saturday after Thanksgiving. That's when Santa Claus rolls up in the back of a red pickup truck, handing out gingerbread cookies to children.

On New Year's Eve, Hosier and his neighbors lower a lighted plastic foam ball from the top of a telephone pole. In a spectacle they compare to the festivities in Times Square, Hosier runs out onto 34th Street wearing a giant diaper (dressed as baby New Year) and pops a bottle of champagne.

"New York don't have nothin' on Hampden," Rodgers said.

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